Only the mildest of bawdy titters will be gleaned from this mediocre dramatic recreation of the early days of the vibrator.
Three men are approaching a woman’s vagina wearing driving goggles. Her legs, hoisted up in stirrups and ceremoniously draped in red velvet and gold trim, frame the shot as they approach her with terror. Brandished before them are ‘The Squealer’, ‘The Excitator’ and ‘The Electric Massager’ – the latter being the prototype machine used to help rid women of hysteria by ‘paroxysm’.
Within five minutes, the woman, legs akimbo, is screaming, singing and giggling: high on the ecstasy of orgasm. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a determined young doctor in London who, unable to keep a job in the established hospitals thanks to his radical views on sanitation and ‘germ theory’, joins Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London’s leading specialist in women’s medicine. He assumes the bizarre role of curing patients suffering from mysterious ‘hysterics’ by clinically and courteously masturbating them until they reach ‘paroxysm’.
Scene after scene of Granville fiddling between women’s legs, arm waggling furiously while a polite upper lip negates the medical smut down below, is presented by director Tanya Wexler without much in the way of wit or irony. And yet it’s thanks to these scenes – and there really are many of them – that Hysteria, almost by accident, shifts into a surreal register. Still, for a film about the liberation and democratisation of women’s sexuality, the rise of women’s liberation and the decline of sexist, unscientific diagnoses, Hysteria is far too nonchalant, ribald and unenlightening.
True, it reflects the attitude of the times, but for a romantic comedy made in 2012, it does little to challenge the residue of these ideas that still haunt mainstream filmmaking today. For both female leads, Wexler relies on the stock characterisations of the beloved period rom-com: simmering sweet (Felicity Jones) or stubborn sass (Maggie Gyllenhaal), reproducing with ease the Madonna/whore dichotomy. The result is a strangely sexless, shallow comedy about sexuality, and there’s really no fun in that.
Of purely historical interest in the invention of the sex toy, of course.
Drained of kink, wit and bite, this historical rom-com fails to titillate.
Maggie Gyllenhaal channels Emma Thompson on heat. No sale.